TAMPA — Local organizers of the Republican National Convention Thursday put their brightest spotlight on the work of AT&T, one of their biggest donors.
To meet the convention's voracious appetite for bandwidth, the communications giant is spending $15 million on nearly 500 upgrades around the Tampa Bay area. It's adding more than 200 WiFi hot spots for the convention and is improving cell phone reception at 85 locations on both sides of Tampa Bay.
All these improvements are meant to handle the unprecedented flood of video uploads, photos, Facebook updates, calls, texts and tweets from the convention's 50,000 tech-savvy visitors.
"It's an event like no other," AT&T Florida president Marshall Criser said at a news conference at the Tampa Convention Center. "This just isn't a Super Bowl for democracy. It's a Super Bowl for communications."
What's more, virtually all of the improvements will stay after the convention ends on Aug. 30.
"This is a one-week event, but this is a lifetime of improvements," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, adding that the upgrades will make Tampa more appealing to the young urban professionals he wants to attract. "What AT&T has done has made us so much more competitive."
To serve an area covering more than 1,500 square miles, AT&T is adding three new cell towers and 300 extra layers of frequency, which the company says is like adding 300 lanes to Interstate 75.
In mid-February, AT&T launched 4G LTE service, the fastest available mobile Internet technology, in the Tampa Bay area. It wasn't a coincidence it was put in place in time for the convention.
"We clearly understand what the expectations are going to be in August," Criser said. "We want to make sure that network's in place. We made sure we put a priority on it in getting it into the Tampa Bay area."
At the Tampa Convention Center alone, AT&T is installing $1 million in new high-tech gadgetry, including distributed antenna systems. Those consist of a series of small antennas placed throughout a building, then networked to increase capacity and coverage. It's like having a series of miniature cell towers, each servicing small areas of the facility and carrying voice, 3G and 4G LTE data.
The improvements aren't expected to benefit just AT&T customers, but will support traffic of other domestic and foreign carriers, too.
"The fact that we're expanding the network allows those calls to come over AT&T's network," said Ken Jones, president of the nonprofit Tampa Bay Host Committee. "The fact that AT&T is doing these improvements is actually going to make those other calls and that network, whether it's T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, more reliable as well. It's not just that it's benefitting AT&T customers. It benefits the convention as a whole because the network is so broad."
One purely temporary improvement AT&T expects to deploy will be up to 10 cell sites on wheels, or COWs, to supplement the network that's already in place.
While AT&T is the convention's official wireless provider, its competitors are getting ready, too.
Verizon Wireless, which set up its 4G LTE network in the Tampa Bay area at the end of 2010, says it is making significant investments to install distributed antenna systems or make other upgrades at the convention center, Tampa Bay Times Forum, nearby venues such as the Florida Aquarium and major hotels such as the Hyatt Regency Tampa and Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina.
On Thursday, however, the Tampa Bay Host Committee made a point of rounding up a big crowd and a roster of dignitaries to showcase AT&T, whose support of the host committee will run into seven figures.
Four years ago, the company donated about $638,000 and $1.4 million, respectively, to the host committees for the Democratic and Republican national conventions. This time, it is giving the Tampa Bay Host Committee, which is working to raise $55 million in private contributions to help pay for the convention, more than $1 million, plus in-kind contributions like free mobile phones and calling plans.
"That will be one of the biggest contributions we have," Jones said.
"But if others would like to join us," Criser said, "we're willing to share the stage."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.